Ever wondered where your used coffee bag returns go?

coffee bag recycling

Since Ethical Bean began in 2003, our non-recyclable packaging has been a thorn in our sides. On the one hand, ethical is literally our name, and creating a product mindful of its ultimate lifecycle is a huge part of that. On the other hand, we are also working on a sustainable, viable business that requires that we sell a bag of coffee of exceptional quality that tastes fresh. Here’s a sampling of some questions we usually get.

Are your bags recyclable?

This has been an ongoing quest for us. During a redesign in 2009, we tested, tried, and tampered with biodegradable and recyclable options, none of which were able to provide the long-term freshness we need to protect those delicately roasted beans. We began to collect used foil-lined coffee bags as part of our Take-Back Program (including used coffee bags from of our competitors) and store them until we found a more sustainable solution. We toyed with the idea of incinerating them, but were quickly informed of the terrible environmental impacts of incineration by the vibrant environmental community in Vancouver and took corrective action.

What about upcycling?

We could be upcycling many of our returned bags into other bags, pencil kits, and messenger bags by a number of organizations locally and beyond. While this would create a second life for these bags, the large volume of bags we currently have stored means this isn’t a sustainable option. Having said that, we’re always happy to give these bags to any designers or artist that wish to work with them.

Shouldn’t you be looking into a biodegradable or recyclable bag for the long-term?

We are. This is the most important step moving forward. Thanks to the B Corp community, we know that we are not the only organization facing this problem. In fact, almost every coffee company is in the same boat trying to find a better bag. To these ends, we have joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition working together to research recyclable options that also preserve freshness. This is an exciting development, and a very cool example of like-minded businesses working together towards a solution that benefits everyone –our global commons, the environment!

What are you going to do with the bags you have?

For internal purposes, we have been upcycling small amounts of the bags through a very cool US-based organization called TrasheBags. While we would have loved to support a local upcycling organization, we ended up using a Colorado based business (despite the shipping footprint) for our upcycling because we only needed a small volume, and they are only able to produce in small quantities. Our next blog is all about them so stay tuned for our interview with their founder and CEO Patricia Byrd.

totally ehical joe

We have also been in talks with an organization that may be able to separate the components of our bags and recycle them into completely different products. Stay tuned to our blog for more information.

That’s the scoop. This is the first a couple of blogs to be released on this topic. As always, welcome your feedback and suggestions as we tackle this on-going issue.

10 Responses to Ever wondered where your used coffee bag returns go?

  1. P. Esslinger says:

    Have you considered having customers bring in their favourite containers for storing coffee beans when they purchase freshly roasted beans?

    P. Esslinger

    • Marianne says:

      Absolutely! There are also options around the lower mainland if you happen to live in BC. You can purchase Ethical Bean in bulk beans in Vancouver on Commercial Drive at the East End Food Coop and Drive Organics, at Nesters in Squamish and at SFU, at IGA in Whistler, and Nature’s Fare in Langley. If you would like to purchase in bulk direct from us, best to e-mail me at marianne@ethicalbean.com.

  2. Goldie says:

    I think TerraCycle can recycle them!

  3. Kathleen says:

    Looks like Terracycle is ending their coffee bag brigade program. This is tough news since I collect coffee bags from all my local coffee shops in Delta to send to them for recycling. That is quite a volume of bags so if you happen to know of someone else who can recycle or up cycle them, please let me know and maybe volume will help. We have to find something good to do with them!

    • Marianne Pemberton says:

      Agreed Kathleen! We also got the disappointing news this week that TerraCycle is ending their bag brigade program. We will continue to accept returns but will be keeping our ear to the ground for new options and opportunities and be sure to share anything we find.
      Should you hear of anything please email info@ethicalbean.com and we’ll absolutely explore it!

  4. Thomas says:

    How do you define “long term freshness”? When I buy a bag of coffee, I almost always open it immediately and then consume it quickly within a few days, or maybe a week or 2. At most.

    How long from when the coffee goes into the bag until the customer opens it?

    I guess what I’m asking is, do you define “long term freshness” as 6 months, for example, but your customer opens the coffee 90% of the time 3 weeks after it’s packaged.

    I live in Vancouver, and threw a bag out last night. It got me to googling an alternative and I haven’t found one.

    • Aqilla Aziz says:

      Hi Thomas.

      It’s required by many grocery stores that our bags of coffee have a 1 year shelf life. So long term freshness in that perspective is the 1 year so that coffee doesn’t go stale on the shelf before it’s purchased and opened. The challenge we’ve had with compostable solutions is that the oxygen barrier isn’t strong enough to keep the coffee fresh long enough for that 1 year requirement. The heat in some transportation methods of the coffee can also affect the compostable packaging.

      Once you open your bag of coffee, depending whether it’s whole bean or ground, you want to keep it in an airtight container and consume it within a couple weeks.

      What sort of alternative are you looking for? A compostable or recyclable bag option?

      • Thomas says:

        The alternative I’m looking for is to throwing the bag in the garbage. Both compost or recycling are fine, (providing it’s genuinely composted/recycled; I have very strong doubts as to the validity of certain coffee pod recycling options that are out there. Trucking stuff from Vancouver to Toronto seems a little carbon intensive to qualify as “recycling”.)

        1 year storage? That seems ludicrous. Why would Save On store your coffee for a year? I’m guessing Jimmy Pattison would be pretty cheezed off if he found out his managers allowed your company to treat his stores as free storage.

        Is there simply no environmentally friendly option to foil lined bags that doesn’t have a tradeoff in terms of flavour?

        As a B Corp with “Ethical” in the name of the company I suppose you’ve spent some time thinking it through, but I would really like to have a decent cup of coffee without the garbage byproduct.

        I’ve spent some time reading the marketing material on how environmentally friendly different coffee companies are, and I see a lot of words on a screen, and not a lot of evidence to back up their claims. Is there a reason it says “Paper” on the Starbucks “recycling” totes that are pretty far away from the sugar packages? Why doesn’t it say, “sugar packages” and who takes their paper to Starbucks for recycling? Why does Starbucks serve coffee in a garbage paper cup wrapped in a recyclable cardboard sleeve that nobody separates to recycle? Those aren’t your questions to answer, but as a consumer, companies saying one thing and doing another wares you down. Look how amazing they claim to be: http://www.starbucks.ca/responsibility/environment but have you ever been offered your coffee in a ceramic cup? Their stores are nice to sit in with free wifi, they probably don’t want you to take your coffee to go, but there sit 20 – 30 people on their ipads not going, drinking out of cups that are garbage wrapped in sleeves that aren’t, but will be thrown out nonetheless.

        The contradiction between marketing and reality is gross. Especially when the stakes are high. And the stakes are high. Not just in in this city that claims to be the greenest in the world in 4 years but everywhere.

        Anyway, I’m ranting. I want to buy your coffee, but I don’t want to throw out the bag you sell it in. What do you suggest that’s reasonable and can be multiplied out across your customer base?

        • Aqilla Aziz says:

          Hi Thomas,

          We definitely agree with all the issues you’ve mentioned here. Packaging is our biggest ongoing sustainability challenge at Ethical Bean.

          If you want some great coffee, without the waste, you can purchase Ethical Bean or other coffees in the bulk section at some grocery stores. East End Food Co-op, Nesters SFU, YIG on Davie and Kerr, Loblaws City Market on Arbutus, and Nesters in Squamish all carry 6 – 8 of our roasts in bulk. Nesters Whistler, Pemberton Valley Supermarket, Grocery Store Whistler, and IGA Whistler also carry 2 – 3 of our roasts in bulk. You can also come into our cafe at 1315 Kootenay Street in Vancouver and purchase some coffee in compostable bags.

          Part of being a sustainable business is ensuring we’re financially sustainable so that we can continue purchasing 100% Fairtrade and Organic Coffee from coffee producers all over the world, while continuing to supporting their communities.

          We agree that sending our bags to Tera Cycle in Toronto to recycle can be carbon intensive, but it’s a better solution than leaving them all in the landfill where they’ll stay forever on this Earth. We’ve reached out to Recycling Alternative, here locally, to see if they might be able to offer a similar solution.

          The 1 year shelf life, doesn’t necessarily mean that the coffee is sitting on selves for that long. The time for distribution, sales, and being in a consumers home all play a factor in the minimum shelf life. It’s an industry standard that we have to work with.

          It is frustrating to see all the green washing and eco claims that aren’t backed up across many industries and companies, which is why we think it’s important to be part of 3rd party verified programs such as Fairtrade, B Corp and Climate Smart.

          I’m happy to discuss any of this further and can be reached at 604 431 3830.


          Lauren Archibald

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